Overview – What is it?
Cancer is the term used to refer to a group of diseases that can affect any part of the body, and which occur due to the growth of abnormal malignant cells that multiply and spread uncontrollably in the body.
Some of the common types of cancer include lung, stomach, liver, breast and colorectal cancer. Tobacco use, obesity and overweightness, and the excessive use of alcohol are some of the major causes of cancer.
The symptoms of cancer vary depending on the cancer involved, however, one symptom that is similar for most cancers is the growth of tumour or mass on the affected body part. Cancer treatment also varies depending on the type of cancer one develops. The types of treatments used for cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiology, hormonotherapy and immunotherapy.
You can reduce your risk of getting some cancers by (among other things) being immunized against some viruses like the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), by not using tobacco, eating a healthy diet, and staying physically active.
Causes – What causes it?
Cancer occurs when abnormal malignant cells (cancerous cells) grow rapidly and uncontrollably in the body.
Some of the major causes and risk factors for cancer include:
- Tobacco use: The use of tobacco causes 22% of cancer deaths worldwide. Whether you consume it through chewing or smoking, tobacco remains a major cause of cancers, especially lung cancer, which is a cancer more common among men.
- Excessive use of alcohol and other soft drinks: Consuming too much alcohol and soft drinks can lead to cancer. Alcohol increases one’s risk of getting liver cancer, bowel cancer and mouth cancer, among others.
- Infections from certain bacteria, parasites and viruses: Hepatitis and Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) are infections that increase one’s risk of getting cancer. For example, HPV increases the chance of a woman to get cervical cancer.
- Obesity and Overweightness: Being overweight or obese can increase the risk for a person to get cancer; especially endometrial cancer, gastric cardia cancer and liver cancer, among others.
- Gene mutation: Changes in gene function can increase cancer risk. Genes are meant to control the production and death of cells in the body, and when that function is interfered with, and the production and death of cells is uncontrolled, the formation of malignant cells can be assisted.
- Exposure to ultraviolet rays or radiation: When a person is exposed to ultraviolent rays, for example from the sun, there is an increased risk of getting certain cancers, such as skin cancer. Exposure to radiation also increases the risk of developing cancer.
- Family History: If you have a close family member who has or has had cancer in the past, your risk of developing cancer is higher.
Symptoms – What do you feel?
The symptoms for cancer differ, depending on the type of cancer involved. However, some symptoms may be similar for different cancers, for example: the mass felt or seen, and pain felt due to cancer are common in most people with cancer. To find out about the symptoms for different types of cancers, visit the pages for the specific cancers.
Diagnosis – How do you diagnose it?
The different ways by which cancer can be diagnosed, include:
- Initial Consultation and Physical Examination: This is where a person explains to the doctor what they feel, and the doctor carries out a physical exam to check for any signs or symptoms of cancer. For instance, in the case of breast cancer, the doctor will feel if there is any lump in the breast, and if so, the doctor can request for more tests to be carried out to determine whether the lump is cancerous or benign.
- Biopsy: This involves taking a sample from the lump and testing whether there are cancerous cells in the sample. A biopsy can be done in different ways:
- Using an endoscopy which involves inserting a tube into the body through an opening in the body, such as the mouth, to remove tissue sample or cells which are then tested for cancer.
- Using a needle to withdraw tissue or fluid which is tested, or
- Through surgery, which can be incisional to remove part of a tumour for testing, or excisional to remove the entire tumour.
- Imaging Tests: These are done on the affected part of the body. The different types of imaging tests including:
- Computerised Tomography (CT): An X- ray machine connected to a computer provides the doctor with detailed images of organs inside the body.
- Ultrasound: Sound waves bounce off tissues, producing echoes that, in turn, form images of organs inside the body.
- X- ray: The x- ray machine takes pictures of the inside of the body, aided by low doses of radiation.
- Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan: A tracer is injected into the body which enables a machine to make 3D images that show how the organs inside the body are functioning.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan: A magnet, connected to a computer, takes images of the inside of the body. This scan provides more detailed images of body tissues and bones, than the CT scan does.
- Nuclear scan: Radioactive material is injected into the body to be used as a tracer. It flows through the bloodstream enabling a scanner to create images of organs and bones which are shown on a computer screen.
Treatment – How do you treat it?
The treatment for cancer varies, depending on a number of factors, such as the stage of the cancer, the type of cancer involved, and the health condition of the cancer sufferer. Some of the treatment options are:
- Surgery: This is done to remove the cancer tumour and is often followed by other treatment options.
- Chemotherapy: This is a common cancer treatment option that involves using a combination of drugs to kill the cancer cells.
- Radiotherapy: This treatment uses high-energy beams, directed at the affected area, to kill cancer cells. It is also used to shrink cancer tumours and can be used for external or internal organs.
- Chemoradiation: This involves the combination chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
- Hormone therapy: It involves using drugs to prevent the already-growing cancer cells from getting the hormones they need to continue growing.
- Immunotherapy: This treatment option uses drugs to make the body’s immune system aware of the presence of cancer cells in the body, improving the body’s immunity, and therefore making the body able to fight the cancer.
Some cancer treatment options, such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy, can lead to side-effects such as vomiting, fatigue and hair loss. It is therefore important to discuss with your doctor what treatment option to use, what to expect and the solution for excessive side effects.
Prevention – How do you prevent it?
The cause of majority of cancers is not known and it is therefore difficult to know how to prevent them. However, there are things we can do to reduce the risk of getting cancer and, in some cases, prevent cancer. These include:
- Stopping tobacco use. If you haven’t started smoking don’t start. Tobacco use causes a number of cancers, including lung cancer.
- Avoiding excessive alcohol intake.
- Maintaining a healthy diet, full of vegetables and fruits, and less sugars.
- Maintaining a healthy body weight, not only by eating healthy, but also by remaining physically active.
- Taking precautionary measures. For example, if you work in a factory that releases poisonous chemicals, wear protective clothing; and when you are out in the sun, use sunscreen to reduce your risk of getting skin cancer.
- Being vaccinated against infections that can lead to cancer such as the HPV and Hepatitis B infections.
- Being tested regularly, especially if you are at a high risk of getting cancer due to family history, or due to other risk factors.
- Being tested regularly for cancer can help one gain an early diagnosis. An early diagnosis can, in turn, enable a more effective and affordable treatment as opposed to treatment when the cancer is in the late stage.